When the subject of saints comes up I always say I knew a saint, or at least in my life I knew someone who was as close to what I believe a saint should be. That person was my grandmother, Rafaela Guerra de Valverde. My grandfather called her Rafaelita but the grandkids couldn't navigate around that name so she became Lita for all of us. She’s been gone many years now but I think about her often. She was an artist specializing in crocheting and needle point, and she was a master cook. But perhaps her greatest accomplishment was her willingness to devout herself to family, and somehow she managed to make each grandchild feel as if he or she was the most special. I suspect a lot of you have known someone like my grandmother. Or at least that would be my hope.
Walking into Lita’s kitchen was like entering the realm of a master chef. She cooked and baked a gamut of foods with the classical touch of old school methods and ingredients. Admittedly, the grandkids were spoiled by her cooking and so was one of the governor’s of Texas who having tasted her flour tortillas asked a friend of his to bring a batch to the governor’s mansion on his next trip to Austin. Undoubtedly a bit partial but I’ve never tasted tortillas de harina as good as the ones my grandma made.
My grandfather, Trinidad Valverde Sr., was a dedicated woodsman and when the prickly pear cactus began offering their first springtime shoots he’d always collect a bunch and bring them home for Lita to prepare. First, here’s how to gather nopalitos.
It’s important to harvest only the tender young pads as pictured above. Larger pads have a lot of spines and do not have the taste of the young pads. Also, pick your nopalitos in the early morning before the sun has dried the pads and thus reduced their water content.
Sometimes you’ll have to reach into a clump of prickly pear to get the nopalitos you’re after. Notice how some nice nopalitos are hidden within the clump. This can be tricky so bring along a pair of tongs and it’s best to wear gloves.
Traditional pocket knives are named for their blade designs. My favorite nopalito harvesting knife has long, thin blades and is known as a “muskrat pocket knife.” Any kind of knife can be used and some folks prefer large kitchen knives.
Always be careful when stepping into a clump of prickly pear like the one pictured above. Notice the tuft of grass. A couple of species of large rats build nests under prickly pear clumps. Rattlesnakes love rats. So step in carefully if you know what I mean…
When you collect nopalitos you’ll want to bring along an old magazine or some newspapers in order to keep the young pads well separated. This makes the cleaning process easier since you don’t have to spend time (or take the risk) of impregnating one pad with the spines from another. In case you forget to bring an old magazine or newspaper you can use clumps of grass to separate one layer of nopalitos from the other. Don’t forget the warning about rattlesnakes.
Using either your tongs, a clothes pin, or a makeshift tong made from a stick about eight inches long and sliced down the middle to about halfway, take each nopalito and carefully remove the spines and pudgy ephemeral leaflets. Once you’ve removed the spines you should thoroughly wash each pad to make sure you removed any spine remnants.
Now cut the cleaned pads into small squares about half an inch or less in size. With that completed you’ve finished all the preliminary work and are ready to either cook the nopalitos or simply use them as part of a salad. Note: Different species of nopalitos have varying tastes. South Texas nopalitos are particularly scrumptious but I’ve tasted nopalitos from other areas that were a bit tart even somewhat bitter. It behooves you to do a taste test before collecting a mound of young pads only to find out their taste is too strong for your liking. Some suggest that the fewer spines a prickly pear species has the tastier the nopalitos will be. That’s true to an extent but should not be held as absolute.
My Grandmother’s Recipe: “Nopalitos ala Lita”
1. Wash the pads to make sure there are no spines.
2. Cut pads lengthwise around ¼ to ½ inches wide and then cut crosswise about the same width.
3. Fill a pot with water and add 2 slices of onions then bring the water to boil.
4. Add about 3 cups of sectioned nopalitos to the pot and boil until the nopalitos change color from green to grayish-green.
5. Drain the nopalitos and then rinse them in cold water until the slimy juice residue runs out.
6. Heat 1-2 tablespoons of oil (olive oil, canola oil or vegetable oil) in a skillet.
7. Add the nopalitos and stir fry for a couple of minutes.
8. Add 1 teaspoon (or more or less depending on your taste) of Gebhardt chili powder, ¼ teaspoon ground cumin, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, a clove of chopped garlic, and salt to taste.
9. Beat 4-5 egg whites in a bowl until stiff peaks are formed. Fold in the yolks.
10. Pour egg mixture over nopalitos and fold in the nopalitos until the egg mixture is cooked. Note: Don’t stir but instead just keep folding in the nopalitos.
Nopalitos are traditionally eaten with corn or flour tortillas but enjoy them however you prefer. You’ll also find dozens of nopalito recipes on the Internet so give it a try if you live where prickly pear grows. Oftentimes you can simply go to the grocery store and buy nopalitos already cleaned and sliced. It’s so much more fun however to harvest your own prickly pear pads and make them on your own. Bon appétit.